Blunkett delivers a beefy doorstep

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
A gremlin in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food computer turned David Blunkett's second reading of the School Standards and Framework Bill into a beef sandwich - a mad beef sandwich.

The Education and Employment Secretary was to follow an announcement about compensation to beef farmers, but because the MAFF minister's papers were not ready, Mr Blunkett agreed to go first and then suspend the debate for Dr John Cunningham's statement.

"If anyone is wondering where the beef is, it is in the Bill," Mr Blunkett told the House of Commons. "The Bill is the most substantial piece of legislation on education ever brought forward by a Labour government."

The Bill covers a wide range of issues from setting up new categories of school, education action zones, powers of intervention by local authorities and the Secretary of State, setting class sizes for infants, and ballots to end grammar schools. But it was the issue of selection that revealed party political differences and allowed ateasing contribution from Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative education spokesman.

Shooting from the Left were the Liberal Democrats - with a little help from snipers on the Labour back benches. Reports from the Right came from the Conservative benches. Mr Blunkett and his team, Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris, sat imperviously in the middle.

Mr Dorrell decided to point out apparent inconsistencies in the Government's line on selection, exploiting Mr Blunkett's now infamous Labour party conference statement: "Read my lips: no selection by examination or interview. "

The Bill, said Mr Dorrell, suggested otherwise. Where selection exists it will remain, grammar schools will stay unless a local ballot abolishes them, and specialist schools will select by aptitude.

"It would be untrue to say there has been a flash of blinding light, but there appears to be a flickering dawn of realisation on the part of the Government, " said Mr Dorrell. "The relevant clauses start unambiguously enough. Clause 90 says: 'No admission arrangements ... may make provision for selection by ability unless ...' and then lists a range of exceptions."

Don Foster, who with his Liberal Democrat colleagues voted for the Bill with severe reservations, accused the Government of a U-turn on selection, again resurrecting Mr Blunkett's "read my lips" quote. He has tabled an amendment which gives a local authority the power to take the decision to abolish grammar schools following consultation.

It was left to veteran Labour backbencher Dale Campbell-Savours to come to the point. "My Right Hon friend (Mr Blunkett) will know that democratic socialists, almost by definition, are opposed to grammar schools, and that many of us would vote to close them tomorrow because we believe they undermine education in our constit-uencies."

Does the Education and Employment Secretary, he asked, look forward to the time these "infernal institutions" disappear? He was thanked by Mr Blunkett for his enjoyable question.

The Government was also attacked for the increased powers the Bill gives the Education Secretary. Mr Foster recalled how Labour in opposition complained about the additional 500 powers the Secretary of State was given in the Education Reform Act 1988, and said he estimated that the current Bill adds another 70 to 100 powers.

Angela Browning, Conservative education spokeswoman, agreed: "Members have obviously become power-crazed. They want more power, and they will vote themselves more power."

The committee stage of the Bill which starts later this month will see a raft of amendments. The Lib Dems will be seeking to abolish foundation school status, re-introduce minimum space standards for schools, extend the class-size limits to junior pupils and give local authorities increased influence in headship appointments.

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